Monday, December 18, 2006

My name is not Michelle! But it doesn’t bother me that much that everyone here thinks that it is. In a prior post, I commented on the fact that many Marshallese people have last names that sound like first names (like John, Henry, William, Joel, etc…). Well, I guess that I’m not so different. I was talking with the president of my branch at church and after 3 months of knowing me, he finally figured out that Brittany is not my last name. He has been thinking all this time that my name is Michelle Brittany. About half of my students have figured out that my first name is Britt and that Mitchell is my last name, but the other half still call me Michelle. It gets to be a little confusing, but that’s ok. At least now I don’t feel so bad if I accidentally call William John “John William” from time to time.

These last 4 months in the Marshall Islands have been a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. I have found that I am more comfortable living within a culture that is not my own than living surrounded by my own culture. I think that most people are in their comfort zone when surrounded by their own culture and traditions, but for me it’s the opposite. I experienced this same feeling when I lived in South Africa, yet I never really figured out why I’m more comfortable and I have less anxiety when I’m living outside my culture rather than when I am surrounded by it. It’s not that I dislike my culture. There are many wonderful things that I really like about being an American of British/Irish/Scandanavian descent. I think that what it comes down to is this: when I am surrounded by people who look and speak like me, I feel an overwhelming pressure that comes from being compared to others and found lacking. There is a stressful need to distinguish myself in some way, to choose the road less traveled and forge a new path. But when I live abroad, I don’t feel any of this pressure. By just being myself (genuine and sincerely me) I am different and unique, and for the most part, I feel that people accept me as I am. For example, in South Africa I was the only white girl in town living in the maid’s quarters of a Zulu family (quite possibly the only one in the whole country). Granted, my South African family, the Nxumalos, made that granny flat extremely comfortable for me and were overwhelmingly generous to me. When I went to volunteer at schools in places like oSizweni and Emalahleni I was the only umlungu for miles. But I was THEIR umlungu, and I felt loved and accepted my most people, without the need to change myself. Now I live on a tiny island. There are a few others here from the states, but most of the time I’m surrounded by a diverse array of wonderful people from the Marshall Islands as well as other parts of Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, the Phillipines, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and the list goes on. I love being surrounded by people who are so different from me because I learn countless new things from them. If I lived in an environment where everyone looked, spoke, and acted just like me, not only would it be boring, but I would feel very uncomfortable. This conclusion complicates plans for the future, though. If I am most happy and most comfortable living outside my culture, does that mean that I should stay away from America? I love America. It is a land of immense beauty and opportunity. I also love my family very much. I want to take care of my parents when they get old. Luckily that's still a few years off, but in the meantime I’m really enjoying being here and learning, not only about the people in this corner of the world, but also about myself.

This week is final exam week, and I’m glad for a little break coming up. My students have been coming to class 5-days-per-week this semester, which is a pretty grueling schedule for all of us. They got a bit lazy at the end and slacked off. On our last quiz for one class, 6 students got A+, none got B’s, 5 got C’s, and 10 got below-passing grades. I was exasperated and in class we had a conversation about characteristics of good students (ie: good attendance, diligence in homework, willingness to ask for help when necessary, etc…). Then I told them that if they made corrections to their tests I would give them back ¼ of the points they lost. I was very gratified to see that many of the students who had scored very low on the quiz put in the time and effort to correct their mistakes and learn from them. I was quite surprised, however, to run across the quiz of a student who had scored 100% on her exam. There was one place on her quiz that I had corrected her grammar slightly, but the rest of her work was impeccable! She had carefully re-written the sentence and submitted the corrections to me. I was so impressed. Here is a student who not only did all those things that we discussed in class, but also took the time to correct her quiz even though she didn’t stand to gain any points for it. Well, to all those other educators who say that Marshallese students lack ambition and dedication, I submit this example. It flies in the face of all the negative stereotypes that some people try to perpetuate. I have many students who are hardworking and determined. They need strong support and guidance to find a career which they will enjoy and in which they can make meaningful contributions. Because their experience is so limited, they don’t have any concept of how many choices they have and what a vast world awaits them. I feel that this is my job as an educator: to help them see the possibilities that await them.

Next semester I will be working with Risi, one of our guidance counsellors, to put together a campus organization called “2+2”. It was an idea suggested to us by Mike Hartman, our Regent’s Professor who has established a wonderful student leadership program here at CMI. The purpose of the 2+2 club will be to form networks of support for students who are preparing to transfer overseas to a University to finish their Bachelor’s degree (2 years at CMI + 2 years overseas). There are a lot of challenges facing our students as they transfer to a University. One challenge is living at least 2,000 miles from home, in a place that is completely unlike everything that you are used to. The cars overseas drive twice as fast (the speed limit here is 35 mph most places), and even the layout of small towns overseas are overwhelmingly complex compared to the two roads we have here in Majuro. They will have to survive in a place where no-one speaks their language and most people speak in English very fast with accents that they may not ave been exposed to. They will go from knowing everyone on the island to knowing almost no-one around them. They will go from a culture in which people are outdoors with each other most of the time, to a culture where people spend most of their day indoors. Not only that, but most people surrounding them will not have even heard of their home in the Marshall Islands, even though they have grown up inundated by American culture and influence. It will take a lot of courage for them to make this leap, but I think that many of them are up to the challenge, and we can make a lot of preparations before they leave CMI that will make their adjustment smoother, such as writing entrance applications, applying for travel documents, choosing an appropriate University, forming support networks of several students going to the same University. I’m really looking forward to getting to know students and helping them explore all the ideas they have for their futures.

Yesterday the Relief Society had our first enrichment meeting. We made Ametama (coconut candy…elukuun enno!) and Marshallese handicraft Christmas Ornaments. I’m a complete failure at most crafty things, but I was really excited to watch and learn. I am amazed at the amount of time and effort that Marshallese women put into their beautiful handicrafts. I’m also amazed at how much can be done with Coconut fibers. In addition, my college roommate Lindsay sent a box of wonderful clothing that her baby has grown out of, and many of the women said they have friends and neighbors who could really use some clothes for their children, so they will help me to share these wonderful gifts with others this Christmas season. Thanks Lindsay, these things that you sent are wonderful!! When I showed my friend Mary, she said that the clothes were so beautiful that she would like to have one more baby just so she can dress them in one of these beautiful outfits (her 7 children are now in their late teens and twenties).

I’m collecting ideas for January’s Enrichment activity. We’re going to work on some Welfare and emergency preparedness projects. We’ll all bring clothes that need mending or clothes that we are no longer in need of and mend them together. I’ll bring my machine and some sewing-by-hand supplies and we can mend clothes together and re-distribute un-needed clothing and shoes to those who need them. We will also purify and store extra water and supplies in a closet at the church in case of emergencies, whether they be natural disasters or just family crises, we can really help people in our church and also in the community. In February I’d like to have an Enrichment activity on nutrition and health. Diabetes is absolutely RAMPANT in the Marshall Islands because the quality of food that people eat is so poor. Everyone consumes too much sugar, candy and white rice, and almost no fresh fruits or vegetables or whole grains. Ramen is considered a very desirable meal here. Because of that, the hospital is overflowing with patients who have Diabetes. While there are public health initiatives to treat diabetes, not much is happening to prevent it and change diets. Part of the problem is that most fresh food is imported from overseas and therefore is very expensive. But just switching from white to brown rice and eating oatmeal instead of sugary cereal (which costs less anyway) can make a big difference. Later on I’d like to start composting and gardening projects with the sisters so that we can grow some of our own vegetables and/or fruits. Wow, the possibilities are really great!

This morning during our story-hour at Alele museum, the Christmas parade sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce went by. It was comprised of two large flatbed trucks flanked by police officers. One of the trucks was decorated with Palm fronds and had both Santa Claus and the RMI national band playing Christmas Carols. Others were throwing candy off the truck to the kids below. The whole parade was over in less than 5 minutes, and there were hoards of children chasing behind the trucks with shopping bags, trying to pick up as much candy as possible. It was definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.

I’ll be flying home on Monday for 2 weeks in California and then I’ll be back here in the New Year for a new semester. I’m going to be teaching 2 Algebra classes (I’m really excited about the changes we’ve made to our curriculum, and can’t wait to try out some new things), and also 2 Survey of Math classes, which is a wonderful, useful kind of math. We’ll investigate finances, statistics, probability, geometry, and other cool stuff. I’m really looking forward. I’m off now…I’ll write more in the New Year! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

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